Volunteer Gardeners: The Enemy Within, by Rachel Cassidy

January 28, 2015

in Articles, General Interest

Are you a garden volunteer? Or a professional gardener? An employer of either? You may find this piece interesting.

Anne Wareham, editor

Portrait Anne Wareham copyright John Kingdon

Volunteer Gardeners: The Enemy Within, by Rachel Cassidy:

At this very moment, in a thousand gardens up and down the country, unqualified and inexperienced volunteers are pulling up weeds and pruning roses, for free.

What a wonderful thing to do, are you thinking?

How nice, to get as many people as possible out there gardening?

Hellebores with leaves.

Ah, it’s the only way that many of these historic gardens can be maintained, you say?

But take a moment to think of the damage that these volunteers are doing to professional gardeners, to horticulturalists, to everyone trying to earn a living within this industry.

Firstly, why would an employer think that they need to offer a living wage to a gardener, when they have volunteers queuing up to work there for free?

Secondly, volunteers don’t need to hold any sort of qualification, in fact they don’t even need to be experienced. It invariably says so on the advert: “come and work in this lovely garden – skills or knowledge aren’t needed as you will receive training”.

Saraccoca humilis at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

What does this say about the employers’ view of gardeners? Well, it clearly suggests that gardeners are ten a penny, and as long as you have one who knows what they are doing, all the others can just get on with what they are told to do. Show them which are the weeds, and that’s all they need to know.

I have no problem with volunteers working on community projects: I do it myself, but I do think that commercial establishments should pay their workers.

February 2014 Copyright Anne Wareham, Veddw 001s

Yes, I have heard a million times that many of our large gardens, especially the National Trust ones, could not possibly operate without their volunteers, and I understand the truth of that: but there should be a demarcation between skilled and unskilled workers.

I think there is a world of difference between an unskilled volunteer taking tickets, or showing people round a house and the complex blend of skills required to be a proper gardener. By using volunteer gardeners, organisations like the National Trust are contributing to the decline of youngsters coming into the industry by removing thousands of jobs.

And if you are thinking “Yes, but they can’t afford to pay a decent wage to a decent number of staff in the garden” then I would invite you to consider the ticket income from “garden only” entrants and to ask where all that money goes. Without the gardens, how many stately homes would attract any visitors? Would you pay to go into a stately home surrounded by plain grass, or neglected parkland?

Lamium in frost S at Veddw copyright Anne Wareham

Not to mention the fact that the few paid gardeners now have to spend their time micro-managing the volunteers: organising schedules, sorting out disputes, re-allocating tasks, advertising for more, tactfully coping with the useless ones and making good the damage and mistakes made. All of which is lovely if the gardener wants to move into management, but frankly, most of us who choose to be professional gardeners want to actually do the gardening, not the managing.

Perhaps these establishments could be persuaded to operate more of an apprentice scheme, rather than a free labour scheme. Volunteers already have to be assessed on arrival, shown how to use tools, and then directed into work: it’s not much of a step further to have them record the work they do as they progress around a garden, perhaps getting “stamps” for a logbook as they do so. At the end of a season, they tot up their stamps and see if they can progress to the next level. It could become something like an NVQ system, with optional written sections for further advancement.

Who knows, the commercial establishments may even end up being able to charge people to gain a qualification, in the same way that we gardeners have to pay for our own further education.

Rachel Cassidy


See also Noel Kingsbury

Rachel Cassidy portrait

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Jane May 18, 2016 at 4:00 pm

Or, they could take on a WRAG (Work and Retrain as a Gardener) trainee from the Women’s Farm and Garden Association and have a committed, increasingly experienced and professional worker for a year! I have been a garden volunteer for 13 years (I am a trained horticulturalist), get a lot out of the one day a week myself – don’t forget the social benefits to volunteers – and we need no instruction or micro-management as we know what we are doing. Whilst I agree with most of the comments in this article, the fact is that many establishments cannot afford more staff despite the shockingly low wages paid to many gardeners, if the head gardener wants his/her garden to look at its best then volunteers might be the answer, unfortunately. I absolutely agree that gardening staff should be looked after properly, that is a matter for their management and if volunteers are more trouble than they are worth, they can of course be asked to leave.

Liz Hughes May 18, 2016 at 12:46 pm

I agree totally. The micro-managing of enthusiastic volunteers can be a total waste of time and at the end of the day also encourages the National Trust, English Heritage and RHS to continue to pay poor wages for skilled gardeners too as they can ‘rely’ on volunteers to fill the gap.
That said, I can understand the want of volunteers to help out – but should be graded and I like the sound of the American system.

Jim Bob May 16, 2015 at 10:53 pm

Try getting into horticulture without experience. Try gaining experience when no one wants to take on inexperienced people. Organisations such as the national trust have long been a starting point for new comers who are desperate and passionate to begin a career in horticulture. Dont turn your nose up. Instead, hold your hand out, and give us a leg up.

Adam June 5, 2015 at 11:59 pm

Nope. Study and work like the rest of us had to.

Adam April 25, 2015 at 1:41 am

I agree with this sentiment . Volunteers are more often than not pompous, untrained, middle class, bored retired types, who despite having attend RHS level 2, have little to no gardening skill. To add insult to injury they occupy places that could be better filled by skilled horticulturists and devalue our profession by promoting the idea that anyone bumbling around in their backyard is analogous with a trained professional.
I often ask what was the point in the five years of training , followed by years on the job in all weathers, if some stuck up bint is going to come along and make a total mess of all my hardwork and planning.

Sue February 1, 2015 at 10:32 pm

I was going round an NGS garden, spoke to the Head Gardener and said did they have an volunteers. No he said , do more harm than good. But the said garden needed prettying up for visitors (paying £5 entry). Lots of dead heading needed. Just the job for a volunteer.

Tristan Gregory January 29, 2015 at 7:35 pm

A very interesting debate so my thanks for presenting it.

I started as a volunteer but as we can all attest gardening is a compelling occupation and I soon found myself in the vacant gardener’s position, this is probably why I understand the garden/volunteer relationship from their point of view; simple enjoyment when it works.

The economic arguments are complicated of course but I have always felt that the managerial and administrative work should be done by properly trained and developed gardeners, you just need to look at the accounts of the head gardeners of the past to see how much they were responsible for.

Charles Hawes January 29, 2015 at 6:54 pm

An interesting article with already a good number of thoughtful comments.

I know I’m biased but where else could you get such a good discussion about garden-related topics? I think there are valid arguments on all sides here. Volunteering in contexts where some people are paid for the same or similar activity is always going to raise tensions. For some peope it might be an important stepping stone to try to get back into work following illness. Or to build confidence, and perhaps some experience before applying for a job. Or perhaps a way of finding out if garden related activity is what they might want to do. Or a way of feeling useful and to maintain some kind of social and physical activity.

Perhaps the key issue is that there should be a two way benefit. To the establishment hosting the volunteer and to the volunteer themselves. Some discussion and agreement about needs should take place.

As for using people who are on benefits, I don’t think it unreasonable to expect claimants to do some work. I would expect that their expenses for attending such work should be paid additional to their benefits. Many of the same factors that I have already mentioned could apply for those out of work but wanting to get back into work.
Prison is intended to be a punishment. I don’t have any in principle objection to extending punishment of the deprivation of liberty to requiring prisoners to do something which is useful to society.

jack February 22, 2015 at 6:56 pm

This is exactly the kind of selfish arrogant attitude that is destroying our society. Work for 30 years pay all your national INSURANCE get made redundant and be stigmatised for claiming back social security of a shameful piddly £65 a week. This is not a ‘benefit’, this is hard graft and slog. How are people in this situation supposed to find work if they are forced into labour in order to survive?

Pay a decent livable wage for a days work and then maybe we’ll start to see a reduction in the inequality of the past 30 years. Slave labour is indicative of a failed society.

Helen Gazeley January 29, 2015 at 6:45 pm

I don’t see the point of the suggested volunteer “apprenticeship” scheme. The volunteers would still be working for nothing, except with added paperwork and you’d be “training up” people who presumably aren’t, except when there for work experience like Holly, looking for a job. And we’re all assessed and certified enough these days, without making it a feature of voluntary work. What I think is truly astonishing is when estates offer the chance to work in their gardens AND charge for the privilege.

Sarah January 29, 2015 at 5:26 pm

I am a professional gardener in the U.S. who used to work in public horticulture (I now tend to private gardens) and this post describes some of the often unacknowledged downside of volunteers. (I’ve never known of volunteers working in a private garden in the U.S., but maybe they exist.) It is indeed the mantra of public gardens here that they could not exist without their army of volunteers. Yet, while there’s truth in that, I can also recall instances when volunteers caused mayhem in the garden (allowed to prune where they had no business doing so, they butchered shrubs), didn’t show up reliably, or spent their time chatting with other volunteers. And the gardening staff was often expected to grin and bear the problems and be grateful for what extra help came their way. I think what irks me most is that the managers of public gardens can be so stingy with their support of and investment in their own staff, especially those doing the daily nitty-gritty gardening. Budget constraints are often the excuse for limiting the continuing education opportunities available to professional gardeners, meanwhile they are required to help provide training to volunteers, volunteers are rewarded with a twice-a-year afternoon of lectures put on by a local consortium of gardens, often given free plants, and generally given deference. There’s no doubt that volunteers allow gardens to be more efficient, but is the gardening staff getting all the support they deserve outside of unpaid help? Are their opinions heard and considered regarding the best way to invest all available resources in order to meet the goals of the garden? In my experience, not nearly as often as they should.

So thank you for this post — it brings to light a point of view that doesn’t often get its due.

Christine dakin January 29, 2015 at 12:34 pm

I run a small nursery and a garden which is open for the NGS. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have more help and it would need to be volunteers because our income is so low. We have one volunteer who does a couple of hours a week edging the borders, he simply isn’t interested in doing anything else but I’m happy for him to do this repetitive job. The was one other person who offered their free help but she was so irritating I just couldn’t work along side her.
On nag other note, if or when I give up our business I might be a volunteer one day. But having been self employed for so many years I might find it difficult (impossible?) to be told what to do.

Holly Allen January 29, 2015 at 11:54 am

Contrary to some of the suggestions made here, a few public gardens do offer traineeships – through the WGFA. This is obviously not universal or the ideal route for everybody, though – being not all that flexible. For someone like myself, who is RHS L2 trained, an arts graduate, a parent and self-employed gardener of ten years wanting to re-focus, volunteering is a way for me to make contacts in an area I have no experience of working in (a prestigious public garden setting), validate my own skills further, and get references from well-respected head gardeners at world-class gardens of my own choice. It’s a reciprocal arrangement, for me, and I don’t see how doing a minimal few hours a week can possibly be perceived as threatening ‘actual’ jobs, or undermining gardening skills.

I agree that occasionally volunteers can be overused to compensate for a lack of skilled staff and are taken advantage of in some situations. Any organisation worth their salt will try to ensure their relationship with volunteers is appropriate, and reciprocal. After all, any good volunteer will simply leave if their end of the bargain is not met.

Alex Lee March 29, 2016 at 11:12 am

Hi Holly – What is WGFA, please? I could not find it on a search.

Sarah May 19, 2016 at 10:47 pm

Should actually be WFGA – they run the WRAGS scheme

rosie larking May 19, 2016 at 11:33 pm

http://www.wfga.org.uk/ Women’s Farm and Garden Association 🙂

Sue Beesley January 29, 2015 at 11:09 am

I run a private nursery and garden. I have never sought volunteers but have been approached many times and have occasionally accepted. People’s motivations vary, but it’s often a case of people having skills or qualifications but little experience and needing some actual work and a reference for their CV. Two have been garden designers who felt their plant knowledge was weak. Study had failed to achieve the depth of knowledge they felt they needed. I try to put volunteers on tasks which for me are ‘nice to have’ rather than commercially essential, such as primping plants for shows, enhancing retail displays etc. I tend not to put them on a whole day of full commercial work, such as potting up plants for sale, though volunteers are generally hungry to participate in ‘proper’ work, for the experience. I don’t believe the few hours a month undertaken here undermines wages, though I can see clearly how it could, if I was minded to let it.

On that topic, I am often astonished at how highly subsidised public/charity sector gardens with a large volunteer workforces can make a loss. In the private sector that simply isn’t an option so the gardening work simply has to be balanced to meet the commercial reality of the income. I do think that volunteer labour tends to encourage gardens to overreaching in terms of maintenance and they then find themselves in dependent upon volunteers to keep up.

Finally, many ‘heritage’ gardens have tied themselves to an historical era when wages were minimal, with tied accommodation etc. It would be completely impossible to maintain these places on modern commercial wages. I guess your view here depends on whether you think that maintaining gardens as they were in the 18th Century is something we should or should not do.

Ben's Botanics January 29, 2015 at 10:05 am

I’ve blogged about this myself as well: pots-and-polytunnels.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/put-your-best-foot-forward.html

There is an enormous range in the quality of gardening volunteers in the UK, ranging from some who are absolute assets to their garden right through to dangerous liabilities. Where there is free labour you will find organisations like the National Trust, the RHS and even privately owned gardens taking advantage. The ‘company’ benefits from a free workforce, but sadly all too often the garden team can be lumbered with the extra work, as well as having to spend their time limited to the work that is unsuitable for volunteers.

Norma January 29, 2015 at 9:56 am

Why limit this argument to gardening?

This article encapsulates why there is such hostility to the Workfare programme. Why would any employer pay a fair and living wage when they can get the job done for nothing by someone on work experience or someone who is trying to claim benefits (as many gardeners need to do at certain times of the year)? It is quite conceivable that in the winter months a professional gardener would find herself working for nothing in order to get enough state welfare to live on. And that work could just as easily be in a large private or municipal garden as in a supermarket.

Why would an employer pay to train someone when they can get a young person to work as an intern for nothing, because that young person’s parents can afford go give them an allowance?

It’s the same in the music industry, art, fashion, law – you name it.

Is it ok that prisoners work for next to nothing to provide a service or product that a commercial company then sells at a substantial mark up? Why should that job not be done for a living wage by someone who needs to pay the rent each month?

These are fundamental questions for the economies of the richest countries in the world, that apparently cannot function without getting a substantial portion of the citizens to work hand to mouth.


Edward Flaherty January 29, 2015 at 9:37 am

Lots of interesting threads in that piece, Rachel!

1.People have so much innate attraction for plants that they will work for free just to be among them in a ‘plant dominated safe and beautiful setting’.
2.People aren’t as bad off as some write when they can volunteer time and still not have shortage of food at home or even a home–so that is a good measurement of our current economic situation.
3.I like the distinction of private sector vs national trust volunteers. Private sector volunteers? I don’t understand that at all. Why do people work at these private sector places for no salary?
4.And lastly, plants, gardens, landscapes all need more maintenance, more stewardship than most of we moderns realize. Nothing wrong with that, just a reality–and a good thing, in my opinion.

Thanks to Rachel and Anne.

Katherine Crouch January 28, 2015 at 11:20 pm

If only we could set up apprenticeships like some my Dad saw in America years ago. The apprentice pays the trainer $x for six months. Shows commitment, and the trainer is not out of pocket if the apprentice is no good or loses interest, and paid something to make the time for training worthwhile. The next six months, the trainer pays the apprentice $x back. By that time the apprentice is worth a wage and at the end of the year if the apprentice has stuck it out, no one loses.

john lord January 28, 2015 at 6:00 pm

Volunteering adds to what the Americans call social capital. I don’t see it as really a threat to the professional gardener as there is only a limited amount of tasks that amateurs can do. And besides gardening is one of the few areas where volunteering is reasonable safe. I don’t think it would have much future in say, electrical work or air traffic controling.

Zak Adam January 28, 2015 at 5:12 pm

Hit the nail on the head!

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